Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Administrative Interpretation of Statutes: A Constitutional View on the "New World Order" of Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Administrative Interpretation of Statutes: A Constitutional View on the "New World Order" of Public Administration

Article excerpt

The delegation of broad discretionary powers from the legislature to administrative agencies is a subject that starts the adrenaline flowing. This is especially true for many who write about public administration and the Constitution. The intense physical reaction is precipitated, in part, by the passionate debate regarding the legitimacy of the administrative state (see for example, Spicer and Terry, 1993; Lowi, 1993; Rohr, 1993; Warren, 1993). Anti-delegation theorists argue that the transfer of broad legislative authority to administrative agencies has resulted in the abuse of the American people (Schoenbrod, 1993); caused several "Political derangements" (Lowi, 1987); enabled legislators to avoid making tough policy decisions, thus shirking their constitutional responsibilities (Ely, 1980); and has contributed to a reduction in public welfare (Aranson, Gellhorn, and Robinson, 1982). In a counter attack, pro-delegation theorists, most notably Jerry Mashaw (1985), argue that the literature does not support the normative claims or predictions made by the "anti-delegation fraternity." According to Mashaw, this "truly heroic theorizing" is based upon numerous unproven behavioral hypotheses" (p. 88). Mashaw and other pro-delegation scholars assert that, despite the objections of anti-delegation theorists, broad delegation is a necessity for any form of representative government.(1)

Central to the delegation debate are questions relating to statutory interpretation. These questions focus on two analytically distinct, yet interrelated areas of concern. The first pertains to the characteristics of an agency's statute(s) and the extent to which such characteristics impermissibly increase the discretionary authority and power of career civil servants. It is generally presumed that the characteristics of a statute have a significant influence on the amount of discretionary authority and power exercised by administrative officials. Theoretically speaking, broad, vague, and ambiguous statutes increase the discretionary authority and power of administrative officials because these characteristics allow, among other things, greater latitude and autonomy in the realm of statutory interpretation.(2)

The second area of concern relates to the actual exercise of discretionary authority and power by administrative officials in the interpretation of statutes and the policy choices made as a result of such interpretations. Stated somewhat differently, it is the type of policy choices made by administrative officials in the translation of statutory mandates into concrete action (i.e., rules, programs, and policies) that is the focus of attention. Because statutory interpretation is "unavoidably an act of creating meaning", (Diver, 1985; 582), scholars have engaged in lengthy conversations about who (i.e., judges, elected political officials, or career administrators) has the ultimate authority to determine the exact meaning of a statute. This issue is front and center in discussion concerning the so-called "judicial deference" doctrine, which encourages the courts to defer to an agency's interpretation of a statute when it has primary responsibility for administering the statute. The judicial deference doctrine is based on the argument that if an agency's statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to a specific issue and, if the legislative intent or history is unclear, the agencys interpretation, not the court's, should be given controlling weight, if it is reasonable. Underpinning this argument is the assumption that agency officials are in a better position to understand the intricacies of statutory provisions because of their specialized-knowledge, expertise, and experience (Pierce, 1988; Starr, 1986; Diver, 1985).

The nature, scope, and complexity of the issues noted above indicate the importance that statutory interpretation has in the American political system. Despite its importance, public organization theorists have not expressed much interest in examining statutory interpretation from the perspective of public administrators. …

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